At some point in our lives, many of us might face difficult circumstances — from aging-related challenges to major life events like having a baby, battling illness, caring for a frail family member, or recovering from loss. Often these events mean we need help with small tasks such as preparing meals or running errands, or we may need more support for particularly challenging situations. Sometimes people lack sufficient family support in times of need. Meanwhile, others would be happy to lend a hand — but may not know help is needed, nor how to help.
A neighborhood support network can help in numerous ways, including organizing people to provide meals when needed, helping one another shovel snow, sharing offers to drive someone to church or the grocery store, arranging walks for a neighbor’s dog, even identifying a good handyman who will offer discounts in the neighborhood. It also might involve more connections among trusted neighbors, including those who are frail, supplementing the support they receive from family. When friends and family help each other together, everyone feels good.
Several hours a week for a few months to form caring community teams and get things started. After that, you’ll need a few hours per month (or more as you choose) to help neighbors and organize occasional community get-togethers.
Once you get this project rolling you will need to stay committed and be prepared to ramp up activity on short notice. For example, a neighbor might go in for emergency surgery and suddenly need to rely on your caring community for help.
Great Reasons To Do This Project
- Help neighbors who could use a little support.
- Strengthen neighborhood and community bonds.
- Build a network that will be there for you when you need it.
- Coordinate services or activities together; you may be able to get group discounts.
- Have fun engaging with others in your community.
THE BASIC STEPS
Step 1: Learn Your Community's Wants and Skills
A survey is a great way to identify what members of your community need and how they’d like to help. See the sample survey in the 'Supplemental Materials' section. This survey was developed by members of Prairie Crossing Volunteer Corps,in Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, Ill., to capture specifics after an initial community discussion.
To begin such a conversation in your community, you might start with a neighborhood gathering like a potluck dinner/picnic, block party or other fun get-together. Let people pitch in by bringing an item and inviting nearby neighbors to attend, as this strengthens community bonds. After that, you might ask whether people would like to meet and discuss developing caring community teams. Such a discussion can help inform a survey. Use the attached survey example as a guide – feel free to shorten or edit it based on what you feel fits, and what’s doable in your community.
The results from your survey will help you identify what people want and how they offer to help.
Step 2: Assign Team Leaders
Use your survey results to determine the sort of caring community your neighborhood wants to build. Ideally, many community members will express desires and also offer to help. For example, you might have one neighbor who is so busy with caregiving that he doesn’t have time to run out for groceries or mow his lawn. Based on survey results, identify the main things people want and decide on a few teams to cover those things. Organize those who want to help into those teams, based on what people say they want to do. If you have nurses, carpenters or aspiring chefs among your group, some team assignments may easily fall into place. Identify someone who can lead each team. Examples of tasks that can be assigned to teams include:
- Handyman services
- Food prep and drop off
- Personal connection and support
- Navigating health and community resources
- Pet care
- Yard care
- Social events
Based on survey results, you might also reach out to local businesses or community colleges to seek ideas about addressing certain identified needs (e.g., discounts on home repairs, shared exercise classes, discussion groups, how-to classes).
Step 3: Engage Your Team Members and the Broader Community
Your next step is to invite your teams to get to know one another better and start building stronger connections across the community. This will set up your teams to know when help is needed; collaborate well when a need arises; and offer help in a way that’s most comfortable to the person in need. Once you’ve identified teams, hold a get-together to discuss how the teams might implement some easy ideas from survey results.
Organize a fun event to build stronger connections across the community.
Your survey might offer ideas about what people want, such as discounts on coordinated home heating/air conditioning service, or maybe a walking club or book group. Or you might invite people to help plan and contribute food/games for a community-wide get-together (neighborhood barbeque, July 4th parade and games, sand-castle/snow sculpture contests, etc.). Whatever you do will help people know one another better.
You’ll need a way to communicate with the community about these activities. If there’s a community newsletter (e.g., a list serve or monthly flyers) you might use that. If that’s not available, figure out an easy way to share information across the community.
Ask whether there’s someone in the neighborhood who would agree to manage an online group or post flyers at key corners, elevators, or a local community location. You might also consider developing a local phone list, including information about special skills.
Your team members might also think about ways to stay connected to specific people in the neighborhood. Some might already know lots of people and offer to stay in touch with them. Others might suggest there are a couple of people on their block they’d like to get to know better. Again, go with what people think will work.
Step 4: Offer to Help
As you build connections across the community, you may find that no one needs special help initially. That’s fine. You might start with a project that benefits a larger group of neighbors (e.g., helping one another prepare for emergencies), or a nearby cause (e.g., reading to youth.) Check out www.CreateTheGood.org/how-to-guides for a host of ideas. You also might find that some teams are busy initially, while others are not – so you might need to cross-pollinate. Sometimes an event – like a lengthy power outage – can create a more pressing need for outreach and service among community members and can be a catalyst for recruitment.
Invite your neighbors to join various projects, and also tell them whom to contact if they need a hand. As many people are more comfortable with those they know and trust, it’s also helpful for individual team members to put the word out to neighbors they know best. And, when your team does learn of someone who might need assistance, the person they know best should offer and arrange help – if they’re interested.
Always let the person decide whether they want help, and how much.
Examples of people who might need help include:
- Someone with reduced mobility due to an injury
- A neighbor caring for a frail loved one
- Someone who recently had major surgery
- An individual who might appreciate a regular stop-by from a trusted neighbor
- Parents who recently had a baby
- Someone who needs a hand with minor repairs or moving something heavy
- A neighbor who recently lost his/her spouse
It is crucial that the person or family you are helping fully understands what to expect. Again, working through someone very close to the recipient, make sure it’s clear what tasks your teams are offering to do, how often they’ll be around, the age range of the volunteers and, for special projects, what expertise they have. Someone may want some of what you’re offering but decline other services. Always respect those desires and requests.
You’ll also want to establish a clear and consistent way that recipients can identify volunteers. Some caring communities use t-shirts with a simple logo or badges. Such a system gives added comfort to the recipient and reduces the chance that someone unaffiliated with your community could slip into a recipient’s home undetected.
Step 5: Start Helping
If the need you’ve identified is easily met with your established teams, that’s great. If the need exceeds the capacity of your teams, ask additional neighbors, friends, family and other community members to help. Often, people rise to the occasion for a special need. Be sure to make all those requests in a way that’s comfortable to the person you’re helping.
If your volunteers see a need that is outside the scope of your teams – for example, your group may not be able to provide round-the-clock care – make sure they know to tell you about it. That way you can discuss additional options with the person being helped – e.g., local service agencies, help from family, etc.
If you need additional help within the scope of what you can do, consider personally approaching people to ask. If the need requires extensive scheduling, you might find it easier to use an online calendar, so community members can schedule things such as rides, meals or errands. See more information about online calendars below.
People generally respond well to a specific request.
As you and your teams work to help someone through a tough time, it is important to remain sensitive to the person you are helping. Most of us are particular about how we run our households and, while people likely will appreciate what you are doing, make sure your teams are respectful and always honor the individual’s privacy. Establish a clear expectation that people are not to repeat what others tell you, nor share anything that’s heard or observed while helping out.
Also be sure to reflect people’s preferences in the way you offer help. For example, someone recovering from illness might be too tired to socialize, or a new mother might not want anyone to wake the baby, so you could put a cooler on the porch in which to leave meals. Or, a family caregiver might have complicated needs and responsibilities, so you might have to go with the flow.
Make sure all team members have clear emergency procedures to follow if needed.
At the same time, the person you are helping should feel comfortable asking for specific things. Be sure to reiterate that your teams are there to do whatever the person needs (within reason, of course).
Step 6: Build on What You've Started
Once you’ve started helping others in your community, discuss amongst your teams what’s working and what you might like to do differently. Reach out to the person or people you’ve helped and ask for their honest feedback. Stay alert to the capacity of your team to help – keeping expectations in line with people’s abilities and time. Discuss how you might improve or adjust your caring community approach.
Continue to be alert to neighbors who could use a hand. By now, everyone in the network should be aware of what you’re doing and alert to opportunities to help. Be sure people know who’s on each team, so they know whom to ask.
Remember, even small projects – like repairing a railing on a porch, or sharing dinner once a week with a neighbor who lives alone – can mean a lot to the person who benefits, so don’t think you have to mobilize your entire network for every situation. The important thing is to nurture the sort of caring community your neighborhood envisions and can support.
To stay connected with your network, try regular email updates and potluck meals or other community gatherings.
Step 7: Inspire Others on CreateTheGood.org
KEEP UP THE GOOD!
Remember, whether you’ve got five minutes, five hours or five days, you can make a positive impact in your community. And if you have more time, consider organizing another service activity, finding local opportunities and posting your events at www.CreateTheGood.org.
ONLINE CALENDARS & CARING SUPPORT
Depending on your situation, one of the three sites listed below may help you to arrange caring support. If you choose to use one of these tools, you’ll need an email address and password for access, and will then follow a series of questions and prompts to customize your site.
As you review these options, please consider privacy issues and be sure that the person you’re helping is comfortable with this approach.
CaringBridge - www.caringbridge.org This free, customizable site helps connect family and friends during a serious health event. It’s a good tool for keeping friends and family informed about a person’s condition and for visitors to leave messages of love and support. Users can sign up to be notified when the journal is updated with new information. You can also have your customized website turned into a CaringBook, a professionally printed book.
Lotsa Helping Hands - www.lotsahelpinghands.com You can use this website to create a free, private, web-based community to organize family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues — a family’s “circles of community” — during times of need. Easily coordinate activities and invite and manage volunteers with an intuitive group calendar. Communicate and share information using announcements, message boards, and photos.
AARP Caregivers Resource Center - www.aarp.org/caregivers
Eldercare Locator - www.eldercare.gov
Project Compassion - www.project-compassion.org/index.php
National Alliance for Caregiving - www.caregiving.org
National Family Caregivers Association - www.nfcacares.org
National Respite Locator Service - www.respitelocator.org
AARP Online how-to kits on home safety, medication management and more - www.CreateTheGood.org/how-to-guides
Special thanks to: Prairie Crossing Volunteer Corps, of Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, Ill., for contributing to this toolkit.